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History of West Calder
Chapter IX. Commercial and Agricultural Prospects


The mention of “Retainers versus Bondagers” in the previous chapter reminds me of the comparative social position of East and West country farmers, of whom it used to be said — “An east country farmer is better off than a west country laird.” But this saying, which was once so trite and true, has, within recent years, been completely reversed. For whereas the east country farmer, with his heavy loam soil, could employ grieves, bondagers, ploughmen, &c., to do his manual work, and leave to himself the comparative life, of a country gentleman, he is now doing so at such a ruinous loss, that recently the highest authority on East Lothian farming asserted, that not 10 per cent, of them are solvent!

Contrast this with the formerly hard-worked petty lairds of West Calder, and kindred moorlands, where the laird and his family did the manual toil on their own lands, until the valuable treasures of nature were discovered beneath the soil, in the shape of coal, ironstone, lime, shale, &c., so marvelously compensating for the barren surface, which could barely support their sheep and cattle, out of which they had to eke a living.

The moral seems to be, that “every dog has its day,” while time changes all things.

But will this commercial prosperity, of which West Calder has had such a wonderful share, last for ever? I trow not! for her agricultural prosperity is on the decline, and fields that were formerly cultivated are now rapidly going to waste; for the present insidious policy that was invented to support commerce at the expense of agriculture is slowly but surely sapping the very foundations of both, and both will have a common downfall, unless a sounder policy is pursued; for the present is but the expedient of “robbing Paul to pay Peter,” and the Nation qua Nation does not save one single sixpence per annum by its present fiscal arrangements. For imperial taxation is growing at the rate of 1.5 per cent., and local expenditure at the rate of 6.0 per cent., while the population is only increasing at the rate of 0.9 per cent.

Yet, with this damaging fact ever present to those whose business it is wisely to rule this nation, we find that the political legerdemain has become an excruciating science— like a man wriggling out of a bog. So we take the tax off one thing and put it upon another, (only to find ourselves in a deeper lix,) a ad still the tax gatherer extorts more than ever;—we change it from a Malt Tax to a Beer Tax, and, at one fell swoop, one million more sovereigns go with it per annum ; while all the time we are led to hug the delusion with complacent fondness—like the man who was so pleasantly bled to death, that he believed he was getting well, as he felt less and less pain, till at last the silver cord snapt!

I write this in no spirit of controversy, but simply as a student of history, noting the past, present, and probable course of events, and that only in so far as it concerns the subject in ha^id, viz.—Whether West Calder has reached the zenith of it prosperity or no?

This question is more or less agitating the whole community of West Calder parish at the present moment, as it did upon a former occasion, in the time of Dr Muckersy, and before free trade, so called, was adopted.

He refers to it under the heading of “Character and Manners of the People” (see chapter V.), and I venture to repeat the extract here, for the sole purpose of calling particular attention to the matured opinion of a former generation of the inhabitants of West Calder.

Dr Muckersy says—“The people of this parish have been particularly blamed for disaffection to the present Constitution. From the state of society in which they are placed, the representation of any kind of oppression, whether real or imaginary, is apt to affect their minds. This, however, is but a momentary impulse; for when they find that the chief articles of life by which they are supported are not subject to taxation, and that what they bring to the market is raised in value by the very system of which they are taught to complain, the good sense of the parish is soon brought to prevail against the designs of those who would mislead them.”

May like good sense be granted to the present inhabitants of West Calder, so that their now languishing commercial and agricultural industries may be restored to prosperity, and so handed down to succeeding generations.

That I am not needlessly referring to this subject is evident from the intense depression that has overtaken both agriculture and commerce in the present year (1884-5), and that in the presence of plenty of capital and an exceptionally good harvest; yet, strange to say, an enormous amount of distress prevails all over the country, and which seems to deepen and spread rather than disappear.

Yet there is one consolation left, which cannot be too highly applauded, viz., that those who have this world’s goods have freely given thereof to their less fortunate brethren.

And, amongst others, the Laird of Badds, who, although non-resident in the parish, has not forgotten to distribute more liberally than ever his annual donation of coals to the poor.

What threatens to further depress the commercial prosperity of West Calder is the free import of foreign petroleum from the undeveloped regions in the Caucasus, and Trans Caspian provinces, which are now being opened by the Russian Government, who are presently expending enormous capital on a combined railway and steam-boat route constructed for military and commercial purposes.

The petroleum trade from the Black Sea to the rest of the world is expected to be of such vast dimensions, that the Shipowners Society of Newcastle recently held a meeting to discuss the subject, when it was mentioned that foreign capitalists were already bestiring themselves in the matter; and that if British shipowners allowed foreigners to secure this traffic, the monopoly gained thereby would ultimately drive British shipping entirely from the Black Sea and Mediterranean ports.

Of course petroleum can never supplant paraffin, in all its uses, but it will supplant it in many of them, and hence lower its commercial use and value.

And, to my knowledge, some of the wisest business men in the parish think an equitable duty should be placed upon foreign petroleum, for its advent will shake “Oil Shares” like the rattling of dry bones; and the wages of workmen will also “go by the board”; so that, ere long, some future historian or poet will ramble through this parish and meditate on the cold hearths and ruined homes of something greater, and hence more saddening, than Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village”!

The battle of “Free Trade v. Protection” is again being fought, and many eager champions are entering the lists. What the outcome may be, time alone will tell.

No doubt, free trade and the steam engine combined have done great things for this and other countries—but famine and plenty— good years and bad years—peace and war— pestilence and freedom from pestilence— come and go as regularly as they did in the days of old, and will so long as the world lasts. But what is wanted is prudent rulers, like Joseph in Egypt.

There never was a height but there was a hollow behind it; and we are now like a ship in the trough of the deep, and if other ships are there it only increases the danger!

But let us look one fact straight in the face, and try to discover what it so strangely portends, viz.—In the year 1882 the population bf the United States was 50,156,000, while that the United Kingdom was 35,241,000 only. Yet the United Kingdom had a greater taxation and expenditure, viz.—Taxation, 88,494,000; expenditure, 88,395,000— (surplus, 99,000). Whereas the United States, with the larger population, only raised by taxation 84,668,000, and only spent 53,746,000, leaving the enormous surplus in favour of the United States exchequer of 30,322,000—a sum so enormous that, with a few years’ accumulation thereof, they will be at a loss what to do with. And all this while from import duties alone, in the above year they raised for revenue purposes j^45,029,000, while this country only raised 19,657,000 from a like source—import duties.

This is surely food for reflection, amidst conflicting interests!

I will conclude this chapter with the following extract, which is culled from a newspaper, and give it for what it is worth:—

“Mr C. J. Kennard, M.P., and Free Trade. At Salisbury, on Saturday, Mr C. J. Kennard, M.P., referring to Free Trade, asserted that the protectionists’ magnet in other countries was extracting from this country its capital, energy, and labour.

What was the explanation of Free Traders to the fact that capitalists, bag and baggage, were abandoning Free Trade shores for protectionist countries.


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